I am reading Grand Hotel Abyss, a history of the figures of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory, a subject I studied years ago. (A very fine book, by the way.) And I have to pause. On every page there seems to be yet another immigrant — most usually an intellectual fleeing fascist Europe in this case — who either starts up, manages, or works in some important American intellectual endeavor. Most of the people mentioned in Grand Hotel Abyss are philosophers and academics, but the same has been true in the arts and sciences. (I know there is a lot of overlap…I don’t see any of these categories as exclusive of one another.)
I pause and bring it up because we forget how much our society has relied on the good work of people new to our country. Indeed, as my thoughts wandered I began to wonder where the United States would be today if war and unrest DID NOT send immigrants and refugees to our shores! The Twentieth Century was a century of immigration. It was also our best century. Immigrants have done more than bring their talent to this country, including those we sometimes looked upon with suspicion or fear, they have defined it.
As I write this, Gershwin plays on my music streaming service. Gershwin often is regarded as one of the greatest American composers, and rightly so. He arrived in the United States with his family as they fled increasing anti-Jewish sentiment in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century. And yet Gershwin is as American as baseball and apple pie because in many ways his story is the essence of the American story.
We all know this. So what is the problem now?
(Warning: Answering that question might lead to some uncomfortable conclusions…)